Russian into Things

It’s the holiday season.  The people I overheard at the bus stop the other day were discussing shopping on the bus.  It can be a long trip from here, and evening traffic out of New York (ironically) is quite heavy this time of year.  Bored commuters, sitting on the bus with their phones, shop.  I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only one with the overhead light on during the fully dark ride home this week.  At one point the driver seemed to think it was a mistake on my part and snapped it off.  I carry a book light with me for just such eventualities, but I had that odd feeling one gets when everyone else got the memo but you didn’t.  In any case, I was reading a physical book, not shopping.

Then I read about a book I need for my research.  Problem is, I don’t have an institution, or a wealthy sponsor, so I often buy books used.  Back in my teaching days Amazon was new, and the idea of buying books online foreign and unfamiliar.  Now you can’t find a bookstore when you want one.  In any case, this particular book was on offer on eBay.  Now, I haven’t used eBay for quite a while.  I never think of it as a place to find reading material, but there it was.  Who would’ve thought research would ever lead in this direction?  The price was reasonable, so I signed in as a guest and placed my order.  With out of print books like this you run the risk of price-gouging or sudden unavailability—the independent researcher’s nightmare.

When the confirmation page came up, I couldn’t help but notice that the header was in Russian.  I wondered if Trump’s dream had really finally come true, or if the eBay on which I ordered an out-of-print book was really a trap.  How do you find out?  Who do you tell when your current government is completely at the beck and call of the Russian government?  I was in a brown study for a while.  The book, used, on Amazon was listed at over a thousand dollars, and this for a paperback published in 2009.  People will pay quite a lot for certain books, even if they don’t retain their resale value.  Ideas, it seems, are worth more than money.  But we no longer have a government to protect our interests.  Not even research, it seems, is safe any more.

If you squint, he could be St. Nick

Kids These Days

I couldn’t have been an easy kid to raise. As a teen, while other kids were experimenting with drugs and sex, I started an unexpected habit. I can’t remember why or how it happened. I was the son of a professional drunk and a high school dropout. (Step dad worked in a sewage plant, so that likely wasn’t it either.) Somehow I’d discovered classical music. It wasn’t through records we had at home. If the artist didn’t have Cash or Twitty in their name you were probably tuned into the wrong station, buddy. Since this was before the internet it must’ve been something I heard on television. On Saturdays I’d beg to go to the Oil City Public Library where you could borrow LPs. I’d check out five at a time, and listen to them with headphones on at home. The general opinion in my neighborhood was that this was snob music and other people didn’t want to hear it.

One of the pieces I discovered was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, (officially The Year 1812). This particular recording began with a chorus singing the Russian hymn, in English (hey, I was just learning!). Although I loved the bombastic ending (what boy wouldn’t?) I was haunted by that hymn. I paid no attention to the conductor—I couldn’t tell a Stravinsky from a Stokowski—so I memorized the albums I liked by their cover art. As a teen I had no idea things would ever change and that one day I’d be downloading music instead of carefully, lovingly pulling it out of a colorful sleeve, breathing in the experience.

Russia’s been on a lot of people’s minds lately. I have a great deal of respect for the Russian people. There’s a stolidity and pathos there that is rarely captured in any national music. I longed to hear that recording again. It took the better part of a day searching the internet to find it—I could walk right up to it in the Oil City Public Library four decades ago and put my hand on it. Those days are gone. When I finally located it on YouTube (Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra, in case you’re interested) I couldn’t stop listening. Not only did it take me back to my fractured childhood, it also made me feel a deep connection for a nation that probably looks at my own with great and earned distrust. We all need to learn to look at ourselves from the outside. That hymn! Listen to the words. I could imagine myself being oppressed by people I didn’t know and who had no reason to hate me. Unto our land bring peace. Amen.

Russian Along

Living at Nashotah House—if you haven’t been, trust me—makes one curious about Rasputin. While on the faculty there, his name was used as a common slur. When Brian Moynahan’s Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned came out in 1997 my wife and I bought it and read it together. Two decades on the details had become fuzzy and, having read about Aimee Semple McPherson and her faith healing reminded me of the famous Russian scallawag. For all his personal faults, Rasputin did seem to have genuine healing abilities. He was more shaman than orthodox, to be sure, and Siberia was the home of shamanism as well as Rasputin. For those who don’t know the story, in pre-Revolution Russia Grigory Rasputin rose from a Siberian peasant family to the most trusted advisor to the Empress of Russia, Alexandra Romanov. Her weak-willed husband, Nicholas, also gave credence to the mystic, despite the latter’s well known drunkenness and womanizing.

The fascinating aspect of Moynahan’s treatment is that it brings out the saintly side of this figure who’s grown such a notorious reputation. That’s not to whitewash his extreme lifestyle, but it is to acknowledge that he was far more complex than many critics make him out to be. He seems to have been sincere in his faith, and perhaps a little mentally imbalanced. He was kind to the poor, and charitable. He wasn’t a bigot, a sin quite common in his day. He was a working class mystic who took advantage of being inebriated with power. His influence over Alexandra was so strong that he could appoint Prime Ministers even in the midst of a world war. This is a fascinating personality.

Reading the book at this point in history, however, proved strangely unsettling. Many of us wonder how a rational, fairly educated and prosperous nation could tolerate the buffoons who inhabit Washington, DC. Daily we see insanity—with no exaggeration—on the level of the throes Tsarist Russia, or even of Rome under Caligula. Instead of taking steps to right the course, the Russian, excuse me, I mean Republican, Party does any and everything in its power to keep the illusion of normalcy alive. Even while foreign ministers of his own party tell the European powers to ignore their own president, American Rasputins just can’t survive without their daily power fix. The sad thing about that last sentence is that after writing it I felt as if I were somehow being unfair to Rasputin. And I lived at Nashotah House long enough to know what I’m talking about.

Who Can You Call?

They’re scratching their heads. The media, I mean. In this distorted world of Trumpism, newspapers have rediscovered religion. Some say Trump is the altar boy of the evangelical right with people like Franklin Graham wetting himself over the president. Others say evangelicals want to change their name to distance themselves from Trump. Everybody seems to want to know who evangelicals are, but they’re afraid to ask. The weird, or perhaps expected, thing is universities decline to help. For years now they’ve been cutting positions in religion, a topic no longer relevant or of any interest. Academics aren’t always good at seeing what’s right in front of them, of course. So it is that the media’s scratching its collective head. Is he or isn’t he? What can you say about a man who’s so clearly heathen and yet a sparkling example of Christ-like compassion and values?

It’s doubtful whether any university administrator or televangelist could finger Jesus of Nazareth in a police line-up. They have no idea of who he was or what he taught. All that matters is he was God and he protects unborn babies so that he can arm them with automatic rifles when they’re of age. Oh, and he’s definitely not a woman. Or gay. Is that about it? Just in the past week major media outlets have run stories about the evangelical relationship to the commander-in-thief who’s told more lies in his first year than all other presidents combined. Who said Jesus of Nazareth was honest? He just stood for the right causes.

Having grown up evangelical, studied religion with evangelicals, and having been fired by evangelicals, I know them well. They have a mental capacity for biblicism that’s nearly incomprehensible. The Bible is so sacred that no other book should be placed atop it. It should never be set on the floor. Memorizing chapter and verse is more important than knowing what they might mean or how to live by them. This is old-school blind faith. And proudly so. Trump doesn’t know the Bible but he says he does. His actions resemble the carpenter from Nazareth’s about as much as Joseph Stalin’s. He was a good Christian, too, wasn’t he? After all, the Bible says Russia is our ally. Reagan—another evangelical—may’ve said they were our worst enemy, but one thing we know for sure about the Good Book: it never lies. For that it takes evangelicals and politicians.

News Pause

One of the benefits of “getting away from it all” is the blessed respite from news. Given the political situation these day I suppose that’s a rather risky proposition since the government is now based on presidential moods rather than any kind of policy or strategy. I worried as I got onto the plane home whether regulations might have changed when I was in the air and whether I’d be landing in the same country as the one from which I’d taken off. Maybe it was more than just time zones that we were changing. Being a child of the ‘60s I couldn’t help thinking about the Twilight Zone—getting onto a plane and then something happens. Quite a few episodes deal with that theme. Only now it’s real time. Real fear.

I have to wonder about the impact of constant news. Since November I’ve been obsessed with frequent updates—scanning headlines for any sign of hope that what began as a joke might have finally reached its punchline. Instead, the press has fallen into normalizing Trump, writing and reporting as if this is what happens in a democracy. It should be illegal to elect a dictator. It’s one of those logical conundrums, but it is a real one. Democracy shouldn’t be just those people who feel like they should getting out to vote. It should be a legal obligation. We know that if votes were counted straight up Trump could not have won the election. Since politicians like to play games we now live in the Twilight Zone of government. Every day Trump is allowed to remain in office the more credibility in government erodes. The knock-on effect will continue for years.

Since stepping off that plane I’ve been wondering what has changed over the past week. Has some basic fact of life been overturned by a presidential temper tantrum? Is what I’m doing now illegal? Has a horse been made a senator? Anything is possible. When I last paid attention it seemed we were well on our way to becoming the United States of Russia. I’m afraid to look at the headlines. The glow of getting away from it all hasn’t faded yet. It’s a hazy, dreamy reality that makes government seem like a bad dream. What would happen if they privatized air traffic control when I was in the air? The results are just to scary to contemplate. I think I need a vacation.

Remember Ronnie?

Listening to Comrade Trump, I wonder what it is the GOP really wants. My doublethink may be fuddled a bit, but I’m old enough to remember a guy called Ronald Reagan—champion and darling of the Republicans, some of whom say he was the greatest president ever—who stood firmly against Russia and its designs on this country. Now there is clear evidence that, no matter what the Comrade-in-Chief personally did, his inner circle has been dancing with Putin and they’re more than just a little tipsy. And the GOP stands up and cheers. I don’t know about you, but those who voted for Trump have to be wondering where they laid their Russian dictionaries about now. The Red Scare has come to town and Ronnie’s rolling in his presidential tomb.

The utter stupidity of not seeing when you’re being played astounds me. Look, I’m not the most worldly guy—I taught Bible for goodness sake!—but even I can see when a senator’s smirk says “sucker!” Where were the Trump supporters in the 1980s when we were against everything the Russians were doing, and that’s when they had Gorbachov leading them out of communism? It’s enough to make an old believer in common sense like yours truly crawl into a bottle of vodka and never come back out. Of course, in my days at Nashotah House some in the Episcopal Church were having their own fling with Russian Orthodoxy. Even to the point that the refectory was ordered to serve borscht. I personally didn’t see the charm in it.

I’m not the greatest nationalist alive. Borders, which are artificial, cause far more problems than they solve. You might call me a communist, since that’s in vogue these days. Nevertheless, if we wanted another country to decide our fate for us, I wouldn’t have chosen Russia. My personal choice? Vatican. As the smallest nation in the world they seem to have the best leader on offer. Pope Francis at least has a serious concern for the poor and needy at heart. There are those, after all, who argue that JFK, our only Catholic president, was even better than Reagan, as hard to believe as that might be. There seemed to be a little kerfuffle about missiles in Cuba, I seem to recall, but let’s let bygones be bygones. We live in a world of Newspeak and tweets. And if I didn’t know better, I’d say this borscht tastes a bit off to me.

Russian Watchtower

From time to time I’ve good-naturedly poked fun at the Watch Tower Society members who used to visit with some frequency. I don’t belittle anyone’s belief system, however. Believers of any faith are generally sincere and certainly entitled to follow the dictates of their own consciences and reasoning. Still, as John Cale sings, “nothing frightens me more, than religion at my door.” Some of us prefer to keep our religious preferences private, while musing publicly about the wider world of religious diversity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have come to mind again because of an article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger my wife clipped out for me. According to Amanda Erickson, writing for the Washington Post, Russia has now classified the Witnesses as religious extremists. She points out the irony since the Watch Tower Society is officially a pacifist group, opposed to any violence. It’s difficult to radicalize a pacifist.

I’m not at home enough any more to be here when the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by. I know they still come because I can see their tracts. There is a Witness who occasionally stands outside my gate at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. He stands, patiently smiling, next to the entrance holding up the Watchtower while anxious commuters and day trippers give him nary a glance. He seems like a nice guy to me. Always neatly dressed. One day I noticed him commenting to a New Jersey Transit employee that a particular denizen of the Post Authority was acting oddly. He was right, and, as a daily user of that facility, I know it takes quite a lot to earn that kind of notice. Ports, after all, bring in many with diverse outlooks on life.

What’s behind the Russian rage against the “extremist activities” of a peace-loving sect? I suspect the real problem has to do with the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are so typically American. And, like the Mormons, a fairly successful New Religious Movement. Religions, it seems, do grow a bit stale with age. Once in a while, something new comes along and revitalizes old systems of belief. Russia, however, is not the Port Authority. There is a repression there that is the envy of New Jersey Transit and every other carrier, I’m sure. Right, United? If only people would conform. Wouldn’t we all be happier if everyone else just believed like us? I’m not sure that history concurs on that point. Perhaps the safest alternative is to remain private. You don’t, however, grow a religion that way. If Russia wishes to inherit these States, they’ll need to learn a bit about the joys of religious diversity. Pacifism is a risk you have to take.